“We Have To LEARN Before We Can HELP”

“We Have To LEARN Before We Can HELP” Responsible Travel and Volunteering By Daniela Papi and Christina Tunnah

The NAFSA conferences aren’t all about the Expo hall and the receptions. Each day they have dozens of informational sessions covering all topics in International Education from Visa application processes, Re-entry and Orientation programming to Responsible Travel. Daniela Papi of Pepy-Tours and Christina Tunnah of World Nomads presented on this last topic and really changed the way I view “Voluntourism”

Daniela has lived in Cambodia for the past six years. She spent a lot of time volunteering and working in orphanages before realizing that this type of volunteering and travel was not benefitting the host communities, and sometimes even being harmful to the very people we set out to “help.”

So, I’m just going to give a brief summary of the main messages. For students and other adult volunteers alike, it is important for you to keep these things in mind when you are choosing a volunteer project to support or participate in. For advisers, and volunteer program coordinators, I hope you too will keep in mind best practices for such projects.

Short-term volunteering, that many people participate in during their one to two week vacations, can be referred to as “voluntourism”.  This is, in general a practice that is done poorly, and here are some reasons why:

  1. It is a Band-aid “solution” – Are these projects getting at the root of the problem?
  2. Volunteers are NOT free­ ­– There is a cost to hosting foreign volunteers, the negative impact on the community might not be worth the extra hands.
  3. Things do not solve problems – schools and supplies don’t teach children. People do.
  4. There is often poor monitoring of volunteers/project­ – unstructured on-site coordination can cause problems.
  5. Skilled jobs are being preformed by unskilled volunteers – why do we think we can build a school without any construction experience?
  6. It can foster moral imperialism – volunteers often have the impression that they are “helping” when really, they reap more personal benefits than the host community does.

Here are the five tips suggested for creating successful Learning Service trips:

  1. Build Relationships – meaningful, long-lasting relationships with local community leaders is essential for a successful project.
  2. Research – make sure you know the history of the community you want to work with and do research before starting a project. How will this impact the community? What resourced do we need? Would we be welcomed?
  3. Invest in People­ – as the old saying goes: “If you teach a man to fish, he can feed his family forever.” It would be better for us to train local teachers than to have short-term visiting teachers (tourists)
  4. Close the feedback loop – follow up on your research projects and ask questions. This is the only way to know about the long-term effects of the volunteer project.
  5. Honest Marketing – Agencies promoting volunteer trips should be transparent in what volunteers should expect and where their money is going.

I hope you will take volunteering abroad seriously and responsibly, by finding a project that is truly integrated into the community, has local leaders and is making a positive difference in the communities. Visit the Abroad101 Volunteer page for a list of some volunteer organizations.

All of the information from this blog was presented by Daniela Papi and Christina Tunnah at the 2011 NAFSA conference in Vancouver, BC.